Coronavirus shatters Bollywood dreams

India's film industry, purveyor of song-and-dance spectacles to millions, will take at least two years to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, which is threatening big-ticket projects and endangering tens of thousands of jobs.

That was the sombre assessment of about a dozen top producers, distributors and actors from Bollywood, the movie industry in India's commercial capital Mumbai, during a video conference last week.

"Making movies has always been a gamble, and now some of us can pack up for the next year," said a film-maker who has made many successful action movies. "We will have to beg people to come to cinema halls."

Such dim prospects, even after the lockdown is lifted, threaten the box-office takings that make up 60 per cent of industry earnings. Producers say such a sharp drop in earnings will force big-budget films and extravagant shoots in foreign locations to be shelved.

"Films will have a tough time," said Jehil Thakkar, a partner at accounting firm Deloitte India.

"Even after they lift the lockdown, I'd expect a lot of people to avoid crowded places."

Bollywood has come to a grinding halt with film production and theatres shut nationwide after Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a 40-day lockdown to curb the virus.

About 9,500 theatres are shut and business at multiplexes and single-screen cinemas is unlikely to bounce back for weeks or even months, as infection fears linger and discretionary spending plunges.

"Theatres may not open before mid-June on a pan-India level and normal occupancy may not come back until August," said Karan Taurani, an analyst with investment firm Elara Capital. He added that prices may have to be slashed to lure viewers.

BIG-BUDGET MOVIES

Industry figures show India makes 1,200 films in a typical year. But Taurani expects big-budget movies will be pushed to the next fiscal year, as production houses battle a liquidity crunch amid falling box-office revenues.

For example, the release of Bollywood's first attempt at a multi-hero action franchise, film-maker Rohit Shetty's Sooryavanshi, has been postponed indefinitely from a late March schedule. The cricket biopic 83, which tells the story of India's 1983 cricket World Cup victory, has suffered the same fate.

"The films were huge," said Shubhra Gupta, film critic for the Indian Express newspaper. "There was a great deal of anticipation from the audiences. It's a big loss."

Shailesph Kapoor, head of Ormax, which tracks Bollywood films, said: "It is likely that even after theatres reopen, only smaller films will be released, so that producers get a sense of how many people are coming to them."

With such a reopening unlikely until the end of this month and no new releases in the last month, trade analyst Girish Johar estimates lost box-office revenue at more than US$130 million over the period.

Komal Nahta, a film trade analyst and television host of ETC Bollywood Business, puts the figure at more than US$330 million.

According to Statista, a research and data website, more than 1,800 movies were produced in India in 2018. No other country produced as many films that year.

While Hindi-language Bollywood films dominate the industry, there are other significant players, including the southern hub - Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada - and those making films in Marathi, Bhojpuri and Bengali.

All told, box-office revenue in India is estimated to have reached US$1.4 billion last year, a nearly 12 per cent increase over the year before, according to an annual report published by Ormax.

Most of that came from Indian films. Hollywood represented just 15 per cent of that amount.

IMPACT ON REGIONAL FILMS

In the regional film industries, analysts have not yet been able to estimate the losses. But everyone knows the losses will be huge and the impact will last at least a year.

Filmmaker and distributor Madhura Sreedhar Reddy said the Telugu film industry was expected to rake in around Rs 400 crore this summer.

"Now, all estimations are gone," he said. "After the lockdown, the big-ticket films are expected to do business with 25 per cent loss even before release. And there will be no theatrical release of small-budget movies for a long time."

Chennai, too, has been hard hit.

Film distributor Tirupur Subramaniam said the Tamil film industry is expected to be the last to reopen.

"We are paying our staff full salary and cleaning our theatres frequently. We have also asked the government for support. I think there will be a drastic change in the way the Tamil film industry does business after this lockdown," he said.

Reuters, Indo-Asian News Service

"It is likely that even after theatres reopen, only smaller films will be released, so that producers get a sense of how many people are coming to them."

- Head of Ormax, which tracks Bollywood films, Mr Shailesph Kapoor

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